Communication always involves other people, but making communication better begins with you.
Self-assessment is essential to improving your communication. If you can self-assess better, you’ll more easily adapt to the situations you find yourself in. Self-assessment, when it comes to communication, is both a skill and an art.
Most people don’t self-assess well, especially not when it comes to a topic as specific and as unwieldy as how you communicate. Making communication better feels as monstrous, as nebulous, and as impossible as understanding the universe. Communication’s expanse permeates life itself. How can we start thinking better about the thing that makes our relationships what they are?
Where to start this imposing challenge? Anywhere! That’s the best part. You can quite literally start improving your communication by fixing anything. Start with one thing and work on it. Then, try to improve something else. Small improvements are key. Self-assessment gives you the roadmap for where to start.
You can start out with improving of any small aspect of your communication and it’s impossible for things not to get better.
It’s essential to the whole business of improving communication that you see communication as a process that you are always engaged in and not just a transactional linear series of messages. If you think of communication success simply as the perception that your message did or didn’t get across to the other person, you are bound to fail. Idealized states of communication are often unattainable and certainly unmaintainable.
Let’s think about how we can structure self-assessing one’s communication.
I often find myself thinking about conversations before they happen. Do you? Perhaps I do this because I’m quite curious about communication, but I also do this because I know there is value in thinking through what I want or need to say before being in the communication moment where you can get that deer-in-headlights feeling as you find yourself submerged in a conversation. There’s a lot to pay attention to when you’re having a conversation with someone and really listening. A little pre-planning can set you up for a better experience.
It’s sensible to go into a conversation with a plan, having asked yourself questions like:
What do you need to ask?
What do you want to know?
What do you need to talk about? Or mention?
How do you want to phrase something?
What goal do you have in mind?
What concerns might the other person have?
These are good things to think about ahead of time and to keep in mind during conversation if you can.
This, coincidentally, is also a good place for me to point out how you have to start seeing communication as an ongoing process: Communication builds up and starts well ahead of actual interaction and engagement. Conversations are already being shaped before they happen.
When you’re communicating—as you’re talking to someone, when you’re in that moment—it’s quite a challenge to be able to steer communication how you want it to go. It’s ok to recognize this. When you are communicating in a conversation, it’s really hard to self-assess how things are going. The flow of humans communicating is fast. Communicating is like being in a dance, lost in the moment. That dance can be anything. But when you’re in it, you can’t get beyond it.
You can try to assess how things are going when you’re in them, but you should probably just be in the flow—speaking, listening, playing attention, looking to fold your own things in. Small adjustments are certainly possible in the flow of conversation. Is your communication spidey-sense tingling that you’re not co-creating the experience you desire? (“Do they think I’m yelling? I don’t mean to be.”) Do something about it! But the big-picture improvements will take a more concerted effort outside of any in-the-moment conversation.
It is insanely hard to steer communication while it is happening. It can be done, but don’t underestimate the challenge here. Communicating can veer off to unexpected places. Don’t get frustrated when you can’t make communication exactly what you want when you’re doing it. This is normal. Even among comfortable communication partners, managing the natural flow of a conversation is a sizable task. Try to stay aware of your behavior in the moment. But, more importantly, reflect on your communication after the fact.
After you’ve had your conversation is where the magic happens. This is the hard, tough work of assessing communication. Afterwards is the time for you to reflect and think about what worked for you, what didn’t, and how communicating went.
How did it go?
What could have gone differently?
What could I have done better?
Did I say what I wanted to say how I wanted to say it?
How could I rephrase things?
Where might I have messed things up?
What did I do well?
What is difficult or fun or (blank) about communicating with that other person?
What do they do that is (blank)? Interesting? Caring? Infuriating?
How could the interaction have gone better?
What could I do differently next time?
What might be challenging for them about communicating with me?
If you’re interested in making things better the next time to you have a conversation, these sorts of questions are invaluable. They help you decide what went ok and point you toward things you can improve on.
Only you can answer those questions above exactly. I can’t tell you what exactly you can or should be able to take away from any given conversation. You can, perhaps quite obviously, have all sorts and types of revelations when you are thinking about communication because it’s your experience and your relationship.
If you’re in a good communication place with someone, don’t overthink it. Keep on keepin’ on. Too much self-assessing can be burdensome.
I can’t assess your communication for you. No one can. I can’t know the context, the other person involved, the background history, and the subject matter. It’s why I’m writing about self-assessment. I cannot do it for you.
It is in this sense, that communication is experiential.
The only person who can make you communicate better, ultimately, is you.
Self-assessing communication is hard. Answering the questions above, and whatever others you might come up with, is challenging. What’s more is that humans are limited in our abilities to adequately, satisfactorily, and correctly assess our own behavior. Humans are naturally biased to favor our own point of view and explanations that benefit ourselves rather than others. We’re not good at self-assessment and think we are smarter than we are.
The questions above give you a starting point, but how to get around their limitations? You have to get beyond yourself if you really want communication to improve.
The first, easiest, and perhaps most obvious step is to ask other people about how you communicate. Solicit feedback from others. Talk to people you trust. Ask questions. Use any appropriate chance to ask someone to give you feedback on how you communicate or are in conversation. I’ve straight up asked friends of mine about why they like talking to me or how they feel about our conversations. I’ve straight up asked my partner about things I do that piss her off or frustrate her. You can do variations of this at work, among friends, after you’ve given a presentation, or just over dinner with someone you care about.
You can also pay attention to how other people react to you. If they don’t seem to get your point, ask them how you could clarify what you’re talking about. Ask yourself and them: What do they not seem to be getting? Is there anything they’d like to know? What could I say that might help them better understand?
These explicit conversations and inquiries, which are really meta-conversations (communication about communication), can be hard. Talking about how communication is going with another person isn’t easy. And to be real, changing communication requires some level of vulnerability and willingness to change, which many people don’t demonstrate or aren’t comfortable with.
Getting feedback on how you communicate is hard and difficult because it’s personal. How you communicate is who you are. It’s experiential. It’s our identity, an expression of our self. How could it not be personal?
Make communication a point of self-improvement. (It’s a process). Draw in feedback from wherever you can. Take honest feedback from another person and attempt to learn from it. Interpreting from good feedback helps future interactions. Other people aren’t necessarily experts in communication, but feedback, if well-intentioned, can be channeled into improvements. Let’s also recognize that feedback from others can often be unprompted, surprising, can catch us off guard, or feel like an attack (maybe it is).
Mostly, I think people avoid talking about how they communicate becuase it’s hard, which is exactly why need to work to improve it.
Getting better at communication can be hard. But you can start anywhere.
Better communication starts with you.
Let’s recognize that self-assessment can be a bit of a double-edged sword. You need to do it to improve, but shouldn’t become paralyzed by it. Accepting other people’s critiques of your own communication is hard because communication is inherently personal, yet we’re ego-driven limited in our abilities to self-assess.
But if you want to communicate better with the people in your life, improvement can start with you.